Lessons learned in Font Licensing

Hi there. If you have been following Balsamiq Mockups, you'll know that a number of potential customers have been turned off by my choice of "Comic Sans MS" as the primary font in it. Not being "into fonts" myself, I had no idea that this font was so passionately hated by designers everywhere.

Aiming to please, I posted a survey here two weeks ago, in which I asked users which font they'd like me to use instead. The alternatives were Architect Small Block, Smiley, Graphite, Blueprint, Tekton, Komika Text and Chalk. I realize now that my decision to put up the survey was a rushed one. Let me explain.

The importance of Family

Mockups uses regular, bold, italic and bolditalic versions of Comic Sans MS. Of the 7 substitute fonts listed in the survey, only 3 (Graphite, Blueprint and Tekton) offer the four variations (a.k.a. the "family pack") which I would need.

Now, this doesn't automatically exlude other fonts since variations of those could be designed by the font authors, but still, that would take a considerable amount of effort and make the licensing price much higher (more on this later).

Font Licensing: welcome to the jungle

I had never given a thought to the fact that fonts are someone's intellectual property, just like a book or a piece of software. Clearly, it makes sense: someone spent time and effort applying their creativity towards creating the font, and so they should be rewarded for it.

Unfortunately, from my outsider's point of view font licensing is more of an art than a science. Look at the license for Architect Small Block and the one for Graphite, for instance. Wildly different, both in length, content and "spirit": one says "Treat this font as if it were a book", while the other seems adapted from Adobe's other software licenses. No matter how hard I looked, I couldn't find a license document for Blueprint: myfonts.com sends me to fonts.com, which doesn't show a license anywhere (if you see it let me know). So I tried to go to Monotype Imaging's website directly, and a search for Blueprint shows you a link which sends you...guess where?...back to fonts.com! The circle is complete! 🙂 Looking around Monotype's website the closest thing I could find was this fonts for developers page, which shows promise but no EULA anywhere that I could find. The "buy fonts" link on Monotype's site sends you back to Fonts.com (they must own both), so I gave up.

I did notice one commonality amongst all of the licenses that I could find: none permits embedding the font into an application (what I would need to do for Mockups). Some licenses are for installation on a single computer, some for up to 5 computers (and maybe some printers). The closest thing I could find to a mention of embedding is in Adobe's license:

14.7.5 You may embed copies of the font software into your electronic documents for the purpose of printing and viewing the document. If the font software you are embedding is identified as “licensed for editable embedding” on Adobe’s website at http://www.adobe.com/type/browser/legal/embeddingeula.html, you may also embed copies of that font software for the additional purpose of editing your electronic documents. No other embedding rights are implied or permitted under this license.

Does my application count as one of my "electronic documents"? I doubt it. Would "editing your electronic documents" apply to Mockups? I doubt it, those are YOUR electronic documents, not mine. 🙂 If you go to that link, you'll see that only Tekton is on the "editable embedding" list. Also, from the rest of the license agreement it seems to me that Adobe really doesn't want you to install/use the font on more than 5 machines, so I'd rather not risk it. I could contact them to find out, I guess.

I guess what I learned is this: fonts have licenses, each license costs a non-negligible amount of money, and volume/embedding licenses are not really common, or at least not common enough to be clearly spelled out in the EULAs. If I want to "do the right thing", I would be entering unchartered territory.


The Survey Results

After such sobering thoughts, let me share with you the results of the survey so far:

There were 50 answers, which is not a huge number but not a tiny one either.

Things to note from the chart:

  • Architect Small Block is a very nice font. Unfortunately it doesn't offer a family pack and is licensed as a book. More on this later.
  • Blueprint is a favorite but I cannot, for the life of me, find a license document for it 🙁
  • Komika doesn't have a family pack either
  • 10% want to keep Comic Sans! More on this later too.
  • Graphite is not in the "editable embedding" list (not that it matters that much)
  • Tekton, the one font which has a border-line chance of making it (family pack + editable embedding license) is people's least favorite font (it figures under "other" in the chart).

Architect Small Block: an excellent font by an excellent microISV

As the results were coming in and Architect Small Block (ASB for short) looked to be a winner, I investigated its licensing (it's the one that says "treat this as a book" from eariler). Since I didn't see an option for embedding the font, I looked for the font creator: QuietDesigns Inc.

After my Monotype Imaging experience, it was such a pleasant surprise to stumble upon a small, extremely-user-friendly-if-not-glitzy website. I just love a website with a face on it - it makes me trust them so much more. Plus the fact that QuietDesigns is a fellow micro-ISV made me like them even more.

So I wrote Ron an email asking about embedding options. We went back and forth as this was the first time someone requested such a thing, and his answers were thoughtful and honest every time. It's so nice to be doing business with other small businesses, it's a new thing for me.

Anyways, Ron gave me what I think is a fair quote for a basically unlimited-users license for his excellent font to use in Mockups...and by now you might have guessed it's in the hundreds of dollars. Which, I repeat, I think it's fair, when you compare it to other licenses (Graphite, for instance, is $29 per person).

Ron, is even willing to consider making a bold, italic and bolditalic version of ASB, but it would obviously take a few weeks and make the licensing price that much higher.

I told Ron that I would think about his offer, and that's why I am writing this post.

What to do now?

The way I see it, I have four options in front of me:

  1. keep using Comic Sans MS: sure not everyone likes it, but everyone HAS it, they already have a license for it (it came with the OS), and I don't have to embed it (I don't embed it today). This has the nice side effect of keeping my application's size small.
  2. go with Architect Small Block: this would mean spending thousands of dollars and waiting a few weeks: although I like the thought of supporting someone with great customer service and a good product, and if I had infinite money and time this would be my choice, I now wonder if it's worth it. This would be the single biggest expense of Balsamiq's history. Is it worth it...for a font? (no offense)
  3. try to contact Adobe to see if I could get an "application embed" license for Tekton...your least favorite font...I have to admit that the thought of doing this gives me shivers
  4. find another font! Is there a font out there which would work well with Mockups, has a family pack and is free (or cheap) to embed in commercial applications? I don't know. Do you? If so, please oh please share what you know in the comments or email me about it! Please don't send me a link to a "free font" site, I need to see a license for the font I end up using.

Of the four options above, if #4 is not possible, #1 (keeping Comic Sans MS) is obviously the most appealing to me. This would basically mean that I did the whole survey for nothing and set wrong expectations in my customer-base, which I'm not proud of. This is why I feel like the decision to run a survey was a rushed one.

Any other option I might have overlooked?

Comic Sans MS, superhero font?

The other day, as I was considering all of this, I ran into this video:

Will Comic Sans MS save the day in our case too? 🙂

The best comment wins a license

Until I figure out what to do about it, I am closing the survey.

As promised, the person with the funniest comment wins a license of Mockups for Desktop. Here's an excerpt of the comment:

I hold Comic Sans in the sort of contempt that's usually reserved for celebutards, cold sores, and Crocs. Not just because it's ugly -- though it's certainly a toad among fonts. It is much worse than ugly: it is inescapable, having consumed the informal font space for a decade. (Which makes it the cane toad of fonts, I suppose.) All because, for millions of users, it's the font that looks least like Times New Roman when trying to style text on their preloaded-with-Windows PCs. It's installed, it's already paid for, it sort of works, so what the heck.

No point blaming all those Microsoft users. But we're designers, damn it, and we know and deserve better. Thanks for holding Mockups to a higher standard.

If you wrote this (and can tell me which font you suggested to use instead), email me and I'll send you a license for whomever you choose.

In closing

Thanks for reading this far. Clearly I don't really know what to do about this, and to be perfectly honest I'd like to close this "font issues" chapter sometimes soon: my TODO list is waiting for me!

If you have any words of wisdom on this matter, please don't be shy and leave a comment, I'd appreciate it.

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Comments (11)

  1. Hi Mandy,

    Thanks for getting in touch about this.

    You can indeed use your own system fonts in Mockups 3 for Desktop. Please open the Project Info Panel and select the desired font from there. More details can be found here: https://docs.balsamiq.com/desktop/projectinfo/

    Hope this helps! If you need anything else, we’re here (support@balsamiq.com). 🙂

    -Virgin from Balsamiq

  2. Is there no way to utilize the fonts on our own computers as a choice? I have a company font, Branded font – and it is truthfully something that I am required to use. Providing mock ups with Comic sans to a very large corporate company is just not something that is ever going to work.

    Can we somehow access our own System fonts?
    I recognize this will not work across most generic websites, but to embed in a functional PDF, or on my server with our font accessible would be beneficial. For my use, the mock ups are provided across many business partners as a PDF (yes, I recognize this is a bit silly), but it is what we need to do.

    If system fonts cannot be accessed, is a very basic – arial/helvetica style font possible?

  3. Hey Peldi, sort of funny story really. See my DUMB video on fonts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZl9D1-d65A

  4. Pingback: Balsamiq Mockups: Wireframes Made Easy (and Fun!) « Dented Reality

  5. There are a lot of freely available fonts out there that might be able to solve both problems. It is true they may not have 100% of the finish of some of the commercial fonts, but you can’t beat the price (watch licensing terms, though).

    For example, a completely free (e.g. NO licensing restrictions), relatively-comic font is http://www.myfonts.com/fonts/larabie/minya-nouvelle/.

    There is a pretty good list at http://www.geocities.com/hartke01/.


  6. Hi Peldi,

    Please apologize my poor english 🙂 I’m french native…

    I’m following a cool blog about design, fonts, photoshop, Illustrator, blablabla, here’s the link: http://veerle.duoh.com/
    I’ve sent a mail to veerle, asking her if she knows a font that you could use… I hope she will help…
    That’s all I can do for the moment! I will follow you on twitter to get informed on you mockup evolutions.

  7. Peldi –

    It sounds like Ron at Quiet Designs is very receptive to finding a solution that will work for both of you, and you have already said that the amount he is charging is very fair. So maybe Ron would be willing to “take a little risk” with you in this venture: Ask Ron if there is a minimum fixed amount he would accept for an initial license, and then you could agree to pay him a portion of your license reciepts until you sell enough copies of Desktop with his font to reach the total amount for which he is asking. You could even offer him a bit more than he is asking to share in the risk you are taking.

    This solution would allow you to get the font you want without having to invest the full amount up-front, Ron’s minimum time & costs are covered, and hopefully you both will win together through the increase in product sales.

  8. Peldi –

    Sorry this turned out to be such a hassle. I can think of a font that solves the font-family and licensing problems, but isn’t quite the informal style you wanted: Bitstream Vera Sans, available at http://www.gnome.org/fonts/

    The first line of the copyright section states:

    The fonts have a generous copyright, allowing derivative works (as long as “Bitstream” or “Vera” are not in the names), and full redistribution (so long as they are not *sold* by themselves). They can be be bundled, redistributed and sold with any software.

    The DejaVu project at http://dejavu.sourceforge.net/ is working on Unicode versions of Vera Sans under the same licensing.

    Meanwhile, Red Hat released the similar Liberation family (https://fedorahosted.org/liberation-fonts/) under the GNU General Public License with a font embedding exception, which states that documents embedding the fonts do not automatically fall under the GNU GPL.

    Liberation is a bit stiffer than Vera Sans / Deja Vu, and that returns us to a drawback: these don’t have the sketchy, informal, just-dashed-off quality that led you to Comic Sans in the first place. But do take a look at Vera Sans; it’s really a nice font, even it it’s not perfect for Mockups.

    Michael Matti
  9. How about you….make your own font? Either yourself, or pay somebody else to do it for you?

    I do like Aarons’ suggestion too, but I think a Mockup inspired font would be cool too.

  10. Aaron, that sounds like the best solution to me, though I’m not sure what it would mean to Peldi. I’m sure that is a bit of a redesign from the development perspective, but ultimately allows for the best of all scenario’s, since he can keep Comic Sans as the default and let users select from their own font list, whatever they choose.

    Peldi, I never saw your survey or heard about this issue until I saw you Twitter post, but I believe that keeping Comic Sans is the economical choice at this juncture. It does not seem as important a requirement to me, as other things might be, and I would put it on a list of pending requirements and revisit it in the future. Comic Sans is just boring and old – it’s been around too long, which is why designers don’t love it. I would guess your developers don’t notice or care as much. My handwriting when making a sketch is not perfect and blocky, so to me it was an excellent choice as it fits the spirit of the “mockup” software, and doesn’t obviously cause licensing headaches.

    If you don’t want to change the design to allow for user-selected fonts (which I hope you will do, actually), you might consider holding a contest and offering a monetary prize that fits the budget of the company to the best font redesign for your product. I say this, not knowing if font designers would jump at the chance to create the “official” Balsamiq font or not (it would be nice to have your own Balsamiq named version though) and it is something a font designer could use in a resume/portfolio, so you might find some people who would enter a contest.

  11. Hey Peldi,

    Have you thought about letting the user define the font from any they have licensed on their machine. Give them “comic” out of the box…but allow them to browse to any of a select list of fonts that have all four states they need?

    It seems that different people will have different preferences, so rather than pick one that seems the best fit, allow the user to customize mockups to their own tastes. This also has the happy side effect of eliminating the licensing issue as you’re not embedding any fonts, just letting them point to ones they already have he rights to.

    Aaron Munter